COVID-19: The Community’s Roundtable on Mental Health Review By Morgan Jackson, Xavier 2021
Experts sat around a virtual roundtable to discuss mental health, wellness, trauma, and COVID-19 among communities of color during the Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education (CHMDRE) Community’s Roundtable on Mental Health in August 2020. This discussion purposed to collectivize the voice of the Black community and to use the community-focused direction to influence services and policies to improve the mental health and wellness of African Americans across the Greater New Orleans area. The Center’s mission is to improve health outcomes of diverse communities disproportionately impacted by health and health care disparities, through community engagement and partnerships in research, education, and practice.
Facilitated by Dr. Daniel Sarpong, Director of CMHDRE, panelists including persons of lived experience, individuals who offer mental illness support and service provision, and caregivers to those experiencing mental illness, offered diverse perspectives on COVID-19 and mental health.
This candid conversation touched on the stigma associated with mental illness and its influence on barriers to mental healthcare access in communities of color. The pandemic has allowed for this conversation to resurface, but this is an issue that communities of color have faced for decades. The more communities of color, particularly the Black community normalizes discussing mental illness, the more people can begin to seek help and help others.
Mental Health & COVID-19
“I think it’s very important for people to understand history,” Sarpong said. “If we learn our history and the experiences that we’ve been through, we will understand where we are going. It is amazing that we as a race are still alive; we have resilience but that doesn’t mean that everyone responds to trauma the same way.” Dr. Sarpong went on to say that the Black community has many pre-existing conditions when it comes to mental health, but we as a people do not have to “roll over” and succumb to it. Panelists share similar sentiments in relation to COVID-19 and how community members are experiencing.
Members of the community shared experiences and expertise around the coronavirus pandemic and social determinants of health, as experts in the field. Grover Harrison, the Director of Community Education for AmeriHealth Caritas Louisiana, noted “For the first time, the whole world is going through the same tragedy at the same time. The outlets that we normally would go to in times of trouble, we cannot access because they are experiencing the same thing.” Mr. Harrison is a lifelong resident of West Baton Rouge and worked to implement one of the first Behavior Health Token Rewards System in the state. Harrison went on to say that during this time it is very important to support one another emotionally through virtual communication. The disease has ravaged predominately African American and poor communities in New Orleans, with infection rates in those areas nearly twice that of whiter and more affluent places. With the stay at home orders and social distancing requirements, people have now had to rely on themselves and close family members to survive.
Yanada G. Essex, a proud New Orleans native, offered her thoughts as someone with more than 24 years of service to ‘the city’s greatest asset, its people.’ “This is an individual and shared experience, and because this is an individual experience we are going to deal with it differently, but know that you are not alone,” Essex said. “It’s okay not to be okay. What is not okay is to keep it to yourself and not deal with it. Help is out there.” Essex has acquired valuable clinical expertise working in the fields of substance abuse, health care, case management and behavioral health, and established a private practice called Brighter Days, Inc., which provides clinical interventions, promotes physical health by advocating for healthy lifestyles, and embraces spirituality through Christian principles and models.
The pandemic has affected people in many ways. It has negatively impacted mental health of human beings, brought about economic challenges, and disrupted normal social interaction, among other issues. As Harrison and Essex noted, because this pandemic is affecting so many people, we as a community do not have to go through it alone.
Transparency around Mental Health in the Black community as it relates to Mental Health
According to Mental Health American, about 13.4 percent of people in the United States identify themselves as Black or African-American. Of those, 16 percent reported having a mental health illness in the past year. The black community suffers from an increased rate of mental health and illnesses. In the African American community, there is a struggle to acknowledge that mental illness exists. Community discussants said that oftentimes, Black community members rely on religious coping and pastoral guidance to deal with mental health, and neglect seeking other forms of resources, like professional counseling.
Oron J. Hill, founder of The Prayer House Ministry, is a Pastor and advocate for children with mental-health deficiencies. He said, “Transparency is something that the Black community does not know.” We, as Black people, do things and act a certain way as a justification as to who we are.”African Americans have a history of striving to survive despite challenging circumstances and this has had a direct effect on our mental health such as suppressing feeling and emotions. African Americans are possibly not aware of the trauma that they might have experienced, and instead attribute their challenge to their personality and other issues. Still today, Blacks deal with racism, prejudice, health inequity and disparities.
Child And Adolescent Mental Health
Many understand mental illness as an adult only challenge, however many children suffer from mental illness too and need to be included in these conversations. Improving a child’s environment in relationships in the early stages of life can result in a better mental state in their adulthood. Deidre Charles, a Behavioral Specialist at the Medical Humanities and Health Disparities Institute, spoke to the interplay between mental illness and children and adolescents given her work. “It’s important to include children in these types of discussions that we’re having right now. A lot of the time children feel like adults will not listen to them or may not understand, so how can they express what they truly want to say. A lot of the kids that I work with are holding in a lot because no one has taken the time to sit down and listen to them,” Deidre said. As an educator of special needs children for the past three years and working with those who have severe behavioral issues, she was able to provide great insight into this largely undiscussed topic. She also provided examples of how she addresses this challenge, noting that she observes her students and identifies what their triggers are, as different children require different approaches to learning and coping.
Leroy Smith went further to share the impact of healthy parenting in caring for the mental health of adolescents, from the perspective of a retired Police Sergeant. “Family dynamics is essential; parenting is essential. As a police officer and supervisor of the Crime & Prevention unit we dealt with family dynamics. Out of my 28 years of experience, I have provided counseling to many families,” Smith said. When on the force, Smith explained that when speaking with children, he noticed they had no strong sense of parental leadership in their lives. Children he counseled returned to their environment where they were not able to utilize what they learned. Leroy Joseph C. Smith is a New Orleans native and now the Founder and Director of a local non-profit organization, Love Is For Everyone Community Service Program.
Negative Stigma around Mental Health
Stigma around mental health can be a deterrent to treatment. Providing mental health education to the community is critically important so that people can come forward about their illness. A willingness to be transparent about the illness or challenge, will allow the Black community to put aside stigma and work towards supporting one another to improve health and wellness.
Jessie Smith, III, who has suffered with schizophrenia and anxiety disorders for 25 years, educated attendees about transparency and mental health stigma using his own experiences. He described, “I was a part of a huge Baptist Church when I was 28 or 29 years old and that’s when I had my first break down,” said Jessie, now a trained state of Louisiana Peer Support Specialist. “I served in many leadership roles in the church and once I had the nervous breakdown, the stigma hit home. Members of the church did not want to be seen with me, deacons were chitchatting, and people were asking what was wrong with me.” However, Smith shared that the weakness that he was so stigmatized by in the Black church, made him realize that he had to help others with mental illnesses to erase that stigma.
Jessie Smith, III, a native of New Orleans, LA, is now a trained state of Louisiana Peer Support Specialist, serves at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New Orleans, is a Louisiana School of Medicine and Tulane School of Medicine consultant on mental health, a member of a number of Boards offering his expertise on various community health issues.
It is important to not only discuss the problems but also effective strategies and solutions to overcoming mental health stigma and mental illness. Stigma causes people to feel ashamed of their mental illness and can prevent them from seeking treatment. In order to overcome mental illness in the Black community, there must be greater access to care for people with mental illness to seek help.
Alicia Faria, Supervisor of the Community Health Navigation Team with AmeriHealth Caritas of Louisiana emphasized the importance of transparency and greater service provision. “When we have conversations with people who have mental health illnesses and ask them how they’re doing, we do not always respond appropriately,” said Farria. Healthcare professionals may not take further action once someone states they are “okay.” She stated that society has taught people to say that they are just “okay” because there are not sufficient services to adequately respond to people’ needs. Healthcare professionals must challenge the community to express when they are not doing well, and also to begin providing the services that are highly needed. Farria facilitates training and workshops that promote dialogue and the breakdown of barriers, as well as helps coordinate care and resources for members.
Another solution noted by panelist Rhonda Lee, former caregiver for a family member diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in the early 1980’s was implementing self-care strategies. She added, “Setting boundaries is a very important step in coping with mental illness. We cannot be everything to everybody. We have to learn how to say no. Self-care is very important.” Her family member is currently living in recovery for more than 25 years. Through education, Lee had to learn how to separate her family members from the mental illness. Telling her story has helped many people. She is the author of For the Love of Bipolar, and volunteers her time with the NAMI New Orleans. She is also a leader of NAMI’s Sharing Hope Program which was developed to build partnerships, and to increase mental health awareness and understanding within African American communities and organizations.
The conversation surrounding mental illness will always exist. Attacking this issue right now, especially during this pandemic, is important for not only communities of color but also with people of lived experience. Mental illness can be treated with the proper resources. This roundtable discussion emphasized the importance of investing in mental illness prevention by providing mental health education in communities of color, encouraging others to seek professional help at early ages, changing the narrator around mental health in order to decrease stigma, and showing support to loved ones.
See a list of COVID-19 & Mental Health resources by clicking the link below: